Guillaume Canet’s terrific, César-winning thriller Tell No One begins with François Cluzet surrounded by his wife, sister, and friends at dinner outside a country house, enjoying a low-key vacation that includes private romantic interludes and bitch-sessions. Then a mystery attacker assaults Cluzet and his wife, leaving him in a coma, suspected of her murder, and caught up in a propulsive tangle of lies, secrets, betrayals, and battles. Unfortunately, Canet’s 2010 film Little White Lies feels like Tell No One minus that inciting incident, and therefore minus the plot. It once again claps Cluzet into a country-home vacation amid old friends with conflicting agendas, but while the self-pity gets chokingly thick, the cast of privileged, navel-gazing characters have no outside antagonist, and no one to blame for their trials but themselves.
Little White Lies’ fundamental problem is that it’s hard to empathize with characters who have so little empathy themselves. Cluzet plays a hotelier/restaurateur rich enough to afford a lavish coastal vacation home where he hosts his friends each year, but he spends his time raging or stewing over petty issues with the house, and refusing to let his friends pay for things, then loudly decrying their failure to contribute. His vindictiveness and volatility make him a nightmare vacation partner, let alone host, but all his companions have their own problems with brittle self-absorption: One married-with-kids friend (The Piano Teacher’s Benoît Magimel) has just awkwardly revealed his crush on Cluzet, discomfiting them both. Laurent Lafitte is obsessed with his banal texting with an old flame, and badgers everyone with endless calls for advice and analysis. Gilles Lellouche (Mesrine: Killer Instinct) cheated on his girlfriend, got dumped, and is lying about it while fretting over how to get her back. And Marion Cotillard is finding that casual sex with active avoidance of emotional connection has multiple downsides. As each of these blinkered characters goes through a crisis period, they alternate yelling, crying, and tense interludes with sloppy partying, in ways that suggest none of them care as much about their friends and families as they do about their mild, middle-aged hedonism.
Meanwhile, another member of the group (The Artist’s Jean Dujardin) has been badly injured in a coke-and-booze-fueled accident. Their decision to leave him in the hospital and take their planned vacation drives some of the film’s drama, but establishes them early as selfish, self-justifying, and petty—perhaps in an understandable way, but to a degree that hugely undermines the film’s attempts to humanize them and make their problems relatable.
Little White Lies has been called a French take on The Big Chill, due to the all-star cast, the coming-of-middle-age themes, and the striking soundtrack, which relies heavily on English-language classics: The Band, Gladys Knight, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Isley Brothers, and much more. But it also recalls The Big Chill in its trumped-up melodrama among people whose problems either aren’t that weighty, or are unconvincingly overwritten. While the acting is superb—Cotillard is always impressive, and Magimel in particular wrings sympathy from his lovelorn frustration and embarrassment—the film flounders with repetition, baggy self-indulgence, characters that read like caricatures, and a crushingly unsubtle and unsurprising last-act twist. At one point, French singer Maxim Nucci shows up to try to see his former lover Cotillard. Their sequence is so simple and pained—his self-effacing approach, the way he charms her cranky friends, the way she freezes up and freezes him out, his cautious, gentle response—that it’s riveting. But his self-aware, kind character makes her and her friends look even more awful, and the strength of the scenes built around him makes the rest of the movie seem windy and hollow. It just takes one diamond in the rough to make the rough look terrible by comparison.